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Woody Weingarten

Musical transforms Buddha into a woman in current world

By March 8, 2013No Comments


Sid (Annemaria Rajala, front) must deal with her dead mother (Alexis Wong) in “The Fourth Messenger.” Photo by Mike Padua.

Hmmm, what if the Buddha were alive today — as a female?

Hmmm, now let me see, what if she were dubbed Mama Sid, after Siddhartha Gautama, and her sacrifices in the name of enlightenment were densely detailed on a Berkeley stage?


Well, the epic musical loosely based on legend just might be exciting, profound and humorous, that’s what.

“The Fourth Messenger,” at the Ashby Stage through March 10, questions whether a woman can survive 100,000 lifetimes to evolve into a purely spiritual yet totally human being.

As a mainly two-person journey toward peace unfolds, the show personifies temptation, prophecy and reconciliation.

Three harbingers appear in human form and embody negatives: sickness, aging and death. The final messenger, pure soul, arrives in an unexpected manner.

All that, and so much more, is viewed through the prism-eyes of two principals — Sid (Annemaria Rajala), a world-famous guru hiding her past, and Raina (Anna Ishida), a muckraking journalist who runs smack into herself while seeking to unveil what she’s predetermined to be spiritual hypocrisy.

But director Matt August keeps the two-hour-plus, two-act world premiere tight, paced seamlessly.

He tempers the tutorial-in-music with verbal comedy and physical slapstick, and drives the silliness through Bridgette Loriaux’s choreography.

Make no mistake, playwright Tanya Shaffer’s ultimate purpose — and message — is ultra-serious: Love gives life meaning. And she appears to offer a corollary obviating the Buddhist maxim that suffering goes hand-in-hand with attachment.

Shaffer, an El Cerrito resident whose “Baby Taj” was a Bay Area hit in 2005, has bitten off a lot. As a result, her script and lyrics are intermittently too dense or preachy.

On the other hand, the text does lend itself to poetic utterances (when Sid reflects on a multi-year meditation, she tells of hearing “cats, wolves…engines… human voices…laughter and pain…and behind the sound, silence, like a bottomless pool”).

Insightful one-liners turn up as well: “You know more than you know.”

Vienna Teng’s compositions from time to time rouses the crowd and runs a musical gauntlet, from pop to jazz, rock to tango, new age to operatic.

Like an opera, not incidentally, “The Fourth Messenger” is nearly a sing-through and succeeds with that format. But Teng’s score is unlikely to compel anyone to hum while leaving the theater.

It must be said, tangentially, that Christopher Winslow, who skillfully and enthusiastically directs four excellent musicians, sporadically lets that verve drown out the singers.

That only becomes a fleeting irritation since the gist of what’s happening remains constantly accessible even when several words are missed.

In comparison, the imaginatively fluid set designed by Joe Ragey — consisting almost entirely of poles and flowing white fabric — is never less than enthralling.

Its simplicity empowers silhouette scenes, and lets the action shift rapidly and smoothly from a magazine office in New York City to a meditation retreat in Newfoundland to a faceless suburban site to a lavish gated community and to bustling urban streets.

Also praiseworthy are the props, which range from a gigantic loaf of bread to a sheet that doubles as snow powder and worldly goods stuffed into a duffle bag.

Shaffer tenaciously attempts to keep things current, to the point where some words — such as staycation — and concepts — like child-abandonment — may rankle.

All 11 performers, many of whom appear in multiple roles, excel within the parameters of complex text and lyrics. Their singing tends to sprint from good to superior, except for a handful of opening night off-notes.

One of Sid’s summation queries in “The Fourth Messenger” is, “What’s one little lifetime anyway?”

My skeptical answer might be: “It’s all that I have — but happily it includes the chance to see a flawed but extremely valuable theatrical experiment.”

“The Fourth Messenger” runs at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby St., Berkeley, through March 10. Evening shows, 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Matinees, Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $23 to $40, available through